A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Memory loss: What’s normal and what’s not?

Graphic of man scratching his head having trouble with memory loss

Talk to your doctor about memory loss when it starts to interfere with daily life.

As you age, you may start noticing you can’t recall people’s names as quickly or you misplace your keys a little more often.

These memory slips usually aren’t cause for concern, but talk to your doctor when memory problems interfere with daily life, said Sarah Kortenkamp, Ph.D., a Marshfield Clinic Health System neuropsychologist.

“Even if your memory problems are caused by normal aging, your primary care doctor will be able to take steps to determine your baseline so it’s easier to detect if things get worse,” she said.

Common memory loss vs. symptoms of concern

“Worrying about cognitive decline increases as many people age,” said Tammy Hietpas, Ph.D., Marshfield Clinic Health System neuropsychologist. “But they often find relief when talking with an expert about what is actually normal.”

Hietpas says many patients are reassured when looking over information in the following chart.


Normal cognitive difficulties Symptoms of concern
Able to function independently and pursue normal activities, despite occasional memory lapses. Difficulty performing simple tasks like paying bills, dressing appropriately. Forgetting how to do things you’ve done many times.
Pausing to remember directions, but not getting lost in familiar places. Gets lost or disoriented in familiar places.
Occasional difficulty finding the right word, but no trouble holding a conversation. Words are frequently forgotten, misused or garbled. Repeats phrases and stories in the same conversation.
Sometimes forgetting where you left things you use regularly, such as glasses or cell phone. Misplacing items in inappropriate places, such as putting a wallet in a kitchen drawer.
Forgetting where you put your keys. Forgetting what your keys are for.
Forgetting parts of an experience. Forgetting an entire experience.
Forgetting where you park the car. Forgetting how to drive a car.
Forgetting names of acquaintances or blocking one memory with a similar one (for example, calling a grandson by your son’s name). Forgetting ever having known a person.
Becoming easily distracted or having trouble remembering what you’ve just read, or the details of a conversation. Loss of function, confusion or decreasing alertness.

Improving brain health

There is no research that shows over-the-counter medications can boost memory or slow down memory loss. Some of them contain chemicals important for memory, but those chemicals fail to reach the brain when taken orally. Vitamin D can affect memory, but it will only benefit someone who is vitamin D-deficient.

There are several prescription medications that can slow memory decline in people with early to mid-stage dementia. They do not improve memory, but can slow down the course of disease.

Social interaction benefits the brain. Older adults who maintain social connections tend to do better on memory tests, Kortenkamp said.

Diet can have an impact on the brain, as well. The MIND diet has been gaining momentum for its ability to help boost brainpower and protect the brain from age-related problems like Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet focuses on plant-based foods that are minimally processed and limits animal-based foods that are high in saturated fats and foods with added sugars. A prominent component of the diet is leafy green vegetables. Hietpas says research suggests that one serving per day could slow the rate of cognitive decline by roughly ten years.

Furthermore, lifestyle behaviors that help people stay physically strong also contribute to a healthy memory.

“Incorporating exercise at least four times a week is going to reduce your risk of cognitive decline,” Hietpas said. “And it’s OK to split it up throughout the day, such as 15 minutes in the morning, afternoon and evening.”

If you have concerns about memory difficulties, talk with your doctor.

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